On September 2nd 2013, MPs met to debate the subject of cycling. Organised by Dr Julian Huppert, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, it was designed to propose that Parliament formally welcomes the recommendations of the Group’s“Get Britain Cycling” campaign.
Although Dr Huppert and other MPs claimed that the debate was extremely well-attended, the number of empty seats in the chamber suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, it was still a very important milestone for the campaign and cycling as a whole.
In his opening address, Dr Huppert set out the key recommendations of the report. The All Party Group wanted to see the number of trips made by bike in the UK rise from 2% to 10% by 2025 and then again to 25% by 2050. He claimed this would be entirely possible and is still well below what the Dutch achieve.
Funding was also a big issue in the debate, with the Group recommending that it is set initially at £10 per person, hopefully rising to £20 in the future. Also included in the report were requests to reduce traffic speeds in residential areas to 20mph, making Bikeability training available at all schools and making roads and cities across the country fit for cycling.
Following on from Dr Huppert, Ian Austin started his address by calling for tougher sentences to be handed down to drivers who kill or injure cyclists. Mr Austin, who is the other co-chair of the Group, provoked outrage within the chamber when he read out the sentence given to the HGV driver convicted of seriously injuring Times journalist Mary Bowers. One MP could be heard describing the sentence as “disgraceful.
Mr Austin then attacked the Government’s apparent commitment to turning Britain into a cycling nation, stating that out of a highways budget of £15bn, only £159m is spent on cycling. He pointed out that the Department of Health was only planning to commit £1m to cycling out of a budget of £1bn and also the fact that there was no dedicated funding stream, meaning local councils would not be able to plan ahead for more than 2 years.
Boris Johnson was widely praised throughout the debate for his efforts to promote cycling in the capital. Indeed Steve Brine called for the report to give birth to what he called “mini Borises” across the country in local Government, a comment which provoked roars of laughter from all sides. He also spoke of the need for cycling to be integrated into the health, tourism and economic strategies of all councils.
The case for segregated cycle routes was also put forward to enhance safety, whilst it was also recommended that cyclists’ needs are considered at an early stage of all new development schemes. Mr Brine called it a “wasted opportunity” that this was not done already.
Funding was a cause for concern for Mike Thornton, who stated that although he welcomed the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that £94m would be ploughed into cycling, this money was only going to a few cities. He argued, “The announcement was welcome, but what about the rest of us? My constituents in Eastleigh could do with some dosh.”
If Boris Johnson was the hero of the piece, the pantomime villain was surely the Community and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He was attacked by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw for his “ludicrous” suggestion that vehicles should enjoy a free-for-all by parking on double yellow lines. Mr Bradshaw stated that the comments were unhelpful and should not go unchallenged if the Government are really serious about cycling.
Poking fun at the portly Mr Pickles, Bradshaw commented that he did not know why he was so against cycling, but mused that it could be the result of “some deep Freudian consciousness that he is probably the Cabinet member who would benefit the most from cycling’s health-giving and girth-narrowing magic.”
Mr Bradshaw’s next target was the Prime Minister himself as he claimed: “We need more than a Prime Minister who cycles to work for a photo opportunity while his limo drives behind him with his papers. We need a Prime Minister, and the whole Government from him down, who will make it clear that cycling is a priority.”
Mr Bradshaw’s comments were soon followed by another attack, this time from Chi Onwurah. She lamented the Government’s decision to abolish Cycling England, stating there is now also no dedicated pot of money or focal point for cycling.
Although welcoming the fact that her city, Newcastle upon Tyne was awarded £5.7m from the Cycle City Ambition Fund, she commented that this was still relatively small compared with those received by European cities. Government announcements were also derided as being “ad-hoc” and the fact that funds are released “seemingly at random”, means that local authorities are having difficulty planning for cycling development.
It wasn’t just the Labour Party that rounded on the Government. Green Party member and MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas stated that she was “disappointed by the Government’s rather half-hearted and complacent responses to so many of the other recommendations.”
Next to contribute was Maria Eagle, the then Shadow Transport Secretary. She launched a broadside against the Government, stating: “Policy after policy has set back the progress that we were making.”
Ministers were criticised for allowing longer HGVs to be permitted on the roads, for downgrading the THINK! road safety campaigns and for abolishing targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on the roads. She also argued that only one tenth of the population would benefit from the Government’s announcement on funding, calling it “too little, too late, after three wasted years.”
It was then the turn Norman Baker, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport he hailed the Coalition as “The most pro-cycling Government that the country has ever had.” He also stated they were determined to go even further.
He hit back on claims that cycling has been under-funded, stating: “We are funding cycling more than the Labour Government did. Between 2005 and 2010 the previous Administration spent £140 million – £200 million on cycling. Under this Administration, £278 million – £375 million will be spent in our five-year period.”
Rounding on the earlier criticism levelled at the Government, he accused some MPs of being “churlish and ungrateful”.
After a closing speech from Dr Huppert, the debate came to an end and there was unanimous support for the motion.